Improving the UK planning system through a user-centred Back-office Planning System (BoPS) with Southwark Council, DLUHC and partners

BoPS screen in a laptop

A user-centred back-office planning system for local authorities

  • A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) Local Digital Fund project to improve the UK planning system
  • Discovery, alpha and beta phases to create a system to meet the needs of multiple local authority planning departments
  • A private beta system now launched with three local authorities, processing Lawful Development Certificates

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Current local authority project partners

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User research and testing sessions

A national-wide problem to be solved

Southwark Council identified that the practical problems associated with poor quality software create challenges for the effective administration of the national planning system, applying for funding from the DLUHC Local Digital Fund to begin exploring how to fix the problem, choosing Unboxed to collaborate with.

Unboxed has been working with Southwark Council and partner local authorities to deliver discovery, alpha and beta phases to create a user-centred back-office planning system (BoPS) for multiple UK local authorities.

BoPS tablet

Understanding the pain of planning officers

Beginning a discovery phase to understand user needs, our team carried out primary user research (including face-to-face interviews, process mapping and shadowing) with planning officers across multiple UK local authorities. Poor quality of application submissions, lengthy manual tasks and system workarounds, and poor usability were highlighted as just some of the existing pain points by planning teams.

“A case officer should be making assessments… Not doing administrative work that can be solved by the right system.”

— Planning officer during a user interview

Investigating emerging data standards across other related systems and projects enabled our team to begin joining up the different projects across the PlanTech environment. Exploring the business case across multiple local authorities (including cost per application type) identified opportunities based on time spent per application per team.

BoPS co-design

Creative co-design workshops enabled our team to work with Planning Officers to begin applying user needs to loose concepts and prototypes to test with other local authority teams. Following a service assessment, the discovery successfully passed a Local Government Digital Service Assessment for meeting the standard.

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Discovery interviews with planning officers and managers

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Local authorities engaged during discovery

Applying user needs to BoPS prototypes

Following discovery, our team applied validated user needs during the alpha phase to create low fidelity prototype concepts to begin solutionising, starting with paper prototyping. Quick and simple sketches enabled our team to test concepts with planning officers for feedback quickly and reiterate elements to retest.

Rounds of paper prototyping transitioned into higher-fidelity clickable prototyping by applying the GOV.UK Design System, then continuing with further cycles of creating, testing and iterating based on feedback. Application assessment journeys and other elements, including document management and decision notices, were continually iterated to meet user needs.

protobops.png

Increased alignment with related projects, including public-facing planning application system ‘Reducing Invalid Planning Applications’ (RIPA), and open and recorded Show and Tells every sprint enabled for the promotion of the project across further local authorities, driving uptake of partners including Buckinghamshire Council and Lambeth Council.

“This would save a lot of time and work in repeating the same tasks as we currently do now. It’s nice, neat, and clear. I hope this [goes] live tomorrow.”

— Planning officer feedback from user testing alpha prototypes

Reducing integration risk through technical prototyping

To de-risk potential future integrations, our developers undertook technical prototyping through integrating with Hackney Council’s public-facing ‘Submit my Planning Application’ to pull in real-time planning application data via an API into an interface. This technical experiment proved the feasibility of integrating with other public-facing planning application systems.

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Alpha prototype testing sessions

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Local authorities engaged during alpha

Prioritising Lawful Development Certificate applications

During beta, Lawful Development Certificates (LDC) were priortised as the first type of application for BoPS to develop the MVP (minimum viable product) system for, as the simplest application type.

Our team designed and developed the end-to-end system through developing with open source technologies (including Ruby on Rails), AWS cloud-based infrastructure, applying elements of the GOV.UK Design System to the front-end, and developing an API to integrate with other public-facing application systems. Ongoing user testing of coded prototypes and production code with planning teams ensured for regular feedback and iteration.

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Beta testing sessions

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Local authorities engaged during beta

A launched beta system with three local authorities

In July 2021, the BoPS system launched into a private beta phase with three local authorities: Southwark Council, Buckinghamshire Council and Lambeth Council. The MVP system is now processing LDCs through integrating with RIPA, and providing applicants with a decision notice.

The next step is to carry out ongoing user testing and iteration of the private beta system, while it processes LDC applications, to then progress into a public beta phase. Following this is the scaling of the BoPS system to process householder applications as the next major application type and milestone.

This project is central to the ‘Planning for the future’ planning reform whitepaper to support a digital-first approach to modernise the planning process, receiving a ministerial announcement.

See more on bops.digital.

“We are excited about the improvements that BoPS will bring to the process of determining planning applications. With clear and intuitive validation and assessment processes and an embedded applicant notification system, LPAs can expect to make quicker, more efficient decisions and applicants will have an improved customer experience.”

— Tom Buttrick, Product Owner, Southwark Council